Graduating nurses who are intelligent, compassionate, and critical thinkers is a crucial goal of nursing programs. However, to meet this goal, the road is often strewn with courses that are content laden, are focused on factual knowledge, and are geared to teaching critical thinking skills that aid in passing a licensing examination but may not necessarily translate well in a real-world setting. Wisdom is a concept in the social science literature that is receiving increased attention in response to a world that is facing challenges as never before (Glück & Baltes, 2006). One view of wisdom defines it as the ultimate goal of an education that produces effective, creative, and ethical problem solvers (Sternberg, 2004a). Educating nurses with the construct of wisdom as a buttressing principle may be an answer to meeting the difficulties inherent in creating a nursing curriculum that meets the demands of 21st century nursing practice.
Wisdom has been defined as a pathway to excellence exhibited by “perfect, quasi-utopian integration of knowledge and character, of mind and virtue” (Baltes & Kunzman, 2003, p. 131). A wise person demonstrates strong intellectual, social, and emotional qualities. A wise person is also insightful and virtuous and shows a refined interplay of thought, emotion, and motivation (Staudinger, Maciel, Smith, & Baltes, 1998). Values are also important components that provide balance to the wise personality. These values include truthfulness, respect for others, sincerity, fairness, and the desire and ability to help others to reach his or her potential (Sternberg, 2004b). Other authors have included empathy, communication skills, and desire for personal growth as other characteristics of wise individuals (Staudinger et al., 1998). Wise people are concerned with the needs of others, and their focus is not solely on their own happiness alone (Baltes & Kunzman, 2003).
The study of wisdom may possibly date back to the earliest days of mankind but has been documented with certainty as far back as the Platonic dialogues (Sternberg, 2001). The study of wisdom also has its roots in developmental psychology, lifespan psychology, the study of aging, and the study of intelligence. Baltes and Kunzman (2003) pointed out the role of the development of wisdom in Erikson’s theories of personality, especially when describing the developmental stage of generativity versus stagnation. In addition, some theorists in this field suggest that wisdom should be perceived as reflecting a type of thinking that extends beyond Piaget’s stage of formal operations to what has been described by these theorists as a stage of postformal-operational thinking (Sternberg, 2001).
From a cognitive psychological viewpoint, it is wisdom, rather than intelligence, that can be perceived as the goal of intellectual development. Intelligence is commonly defined as both the ability to learn from one’s experiences and the ability to successfully adapt to one’s environment (Gregory, 2007). However, this commonly accepted definition of intelligence is focused on the cognitive and does not adequately reflect the role of affective and conative components of true intelligence (Glück & Baltes, 2006). In addition, intelligence tests fail to demonstrate a person’s decision-making abilities in real-life situations or their social skills (Grossman, Na, Varnum, Kitayama, & Nisbett, 2012). Tests that measure cognitive style, creativity, and personality are more likely to reflect a person’s potential wisdom-related abilities (Staudinger & Baltes, 1996). Therefore, wisdom is a more global, all-encompassing description of a person’s intellectual abilities. It includes attitudes, values, social skills, ethics, and prosocial tendencies, in addition to intellectual abilities. These qualities are desirable and important in today’s nurse.
Sternberg (2004a) defined four possible scenarios for the future of education in the United States. One scenario will produce graduates who have learned facts and accumulated knowledge but who have no critical thinking skills. Another scenario will produce graduates who are good critical thinkers, and another will produce intelligent thinkers. He suggested yet one more scenario for a future with graduates who are wise thinkers.
According to Sternberg (2004a), students who have learned facts and accumulated knowledge by recitation and repetition can be referred to as “walking encyclopedias.” An excellent analogy he offered is that of memorizing a German–English dictionary. A person who does this can translate many words, yet this person still does not know the language. Besides producing graduates who are not critical thinkers, an important commodity in this fast-paced world, this type of education also cannot produce graduates who are wise.
A system that produces critical thinkers will produce good problem solvers. However, what is lacking in this scenario is the fact that these graduates will not use creativity in their problem solving skills that can mold and affect the environment in their chosen field of endeavor. Graduates of an educational system that produces intelligent thinkers will possess creative, analytical, and practical abilities that will generate new ideas. These graduates are those who learn to think outside the box when problem solving. However, graduates from a system that teaches wisdom in addition to knowledge, critical thinking, and intelligent thinking will differ in one important aspect. The resulting creativity and out-of-the-box problem-solving skills will be used for the common good, rather than for the gain of self or private interest groups (Sternberg, 2004a).
Many wisdom-related behaviors are learned from life experiences (Glück & Baltes, 2006). Nursing students enter a nursing program with varying life experiences. To introduce the concept of wisdom in a nursing program and to level the playing field, small-group discussions in a first-semester course such as Nursing Fundamentals, where students are asked to define wisdom, describe the characteristics of a wise person, and delineate the benefits of wisdom-related behaviors in the nursing professional, can be utilized. A reflective writing assignment can then also be added for the students to further explore the topic, create personal goals, and develop a plan to help them meet those goals. The plan can then be revisited at various points during the course of the nursing program.
Given that ethical decision making, honesty, and concern for the welfare of others are characteristics of the wise, a dialogue on wisdom early in the nursing curriculum also provides an excellent segue into a conversation on issues surrounding academic and professional honesty and integrity. This discussion would include topics such as plagiarism, cheating, and appropriate behaviors in the clinical setting.
Another excellent way to increase wisdom is through mentorship (Staudinger & Baltes, 1996). Assigning a new, first-level nursing student with a senior-level student mentor provides the first-level student with the opportunity to observe and model a higher level of wisdom. It also offers the opportunity for a listening ear with whom they can brainstorm for wise solutions to problems in a safe context. Serving in the role of mentor has also been demonstrated to increase wisdom in the mentor, so this relationship provides benefits to both the mentor and mentee. Other forms of professional socialization, such as study groups and other peer groups, as well as membership in professional organizations, can increase wisdom-related thinking and behavior (Staudinger & Baltes, 1996).
Sternberg (2001) suggested that the active teaching of certain skills and thinking patterns is another way to increase wisdom. He says that this can be accomplished through the reading and discussion of life dilemma scenarios that depict wise decision making and judgment. These scenarios would include recognition of the best interests of others and a consideration of the students’ own personal values. In nursing, the increased use of case studies that also consider wise behaviors and values, and a discussion of these in small and large groups rather than lecture format classes, would accomplish this. However, for these discussions to be most effective, students must come to class prepared, having completed the readings. A before-class discussion board assignment using the school’s online classroom platform can be used to engage students in the textbook and the material before coming to class. This would generate better preparation, less lecture time, and more in-class time for discussion and reflection.
Wisdom is transmitted through social interaction. Staudinger and Baltes (1996) found that individuals who discussed problems with others perceived as wiser and important to them and then who spent time thinking about the conversation before formulating a solution to the problem demonstrated higher levels of wisdom-related performance. Of note, this study also revealed that the same effect resulted when the person only imagined a conversation with their mentor. The time spent reviewing and digesting the interaction is just as crucial as the actual interaction (Staudinger & Baltes, 1996).
Böhmig-Krumhaar, Staudinger, and Baltes (2002) asked participants to imagine that they were viewing different places and peoples around the globe from a cloud. They were then presented with life dilemma scenarios and evaluated for wise responses. The effects of this intervention were significant. What was interesting about this study was that the participants were not taught any new behaviors. Rather, it seemed that preexisting wisdom-related cognitive patterns in the participants were activated and enhanced solely by the intervention (as cited in Glück & Baltes, 2006).
A similar study conducted by Kross and Grossman (2012) found that participants who were cued to contemplate an important issue from a psychologically distanced point of view also gave wiser answers to given scenarios. Similar to imagining places and people from a cloud, psychological distancing encourages participants to view an issue with the larger picture in mind and to think less from an egocentric perspective.
On the basis of those two studies, it appears that wisdom-related performance is enhanced when a global perspective is assumed. This can be applied to nursing students when discussing case studies by asking, “What would the wise (experienced) nurse do in this situation?” rather than “What would you do in this situation?” These studies also allude to the importance of including a global issues in health care thread in the curriculum. Besides increasing wisdom-related performance, such a perspective may help to foster concern for others who are not only in the immediate environment of the nurse.
Glück and Baltes (2006) also used life problem scenarios similar to the previously mentioned two studies and found that individuals’ preexisting developmental levels of wisdom influenced the effectiveness of this type of short-term intervention. This is an important factor to be considered and may indicate that some sort of preadmission screening of students for maturity and wisdom-related capabilities may be advisable, in addition to other preadmission screening. Besides the qualities of wisdom mentioned earlier in this article, the consensus of many researchers in this area is that wisdom also includes three important dimensions. These are that (a) an individual recognizes that the world is in flux and constantly changing, (b) the individual is aware of the limitations of his or her knowledge, and (c) the individual is focused on promoting the common welfare of mankind (Kross & Grossman, 2012). Any or all of these dimensions of wisdom could be easily translated into an excellent topic for a preadmission essay and could be a rich source of information for admissions counselors.
The point mentioned above—that a wise individual is one who is aware of the limits of his or her knowledge—is an important one for nursing students as well. Because of the tremendous amount of information in health care today, it is impossible for a nurse to know everything, all the time. However, nursing students often feel that they should know all of the answers and are reluctant to admit that they do not. It takes a wise nursing student or graduate nurse to honestly acknowledge one’s limitations and to actively and aggressively seek more information or ask questions before engaging in patient care. This is an important concept to transmit to students.
Wisdom is a collective and shared cognitive, affective, and conative attribute that can be learned best through sharing and interaction. Wisdom is an important attribute for a nurse to possess, and the formation of wise nurses can be a pivotal goal of a nursing curriculum. An interactive, interpersonal teaching style, rather than lecture, with the attributes of wisdom always in mind, is one way to accomplish this. Another is the modeling of wisdom-related behaviors by faculty.
Although current research on wisdom needs to be validated with respect to nursing, and more research is warranted to further explore ways to teach wisdom-related thinking in nurses, the current article has made some suggestions on how current knowledge can be applied to enhancing a nursing curriculum. The goal of such curriculum changes would be to produce wiser nurses who are creative, innovative, ethical problem solvers who ultimately promote the betterment of humankind and actively play a role in forming a more compassionate world that meets the health care needs of all citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status.
- Baltes, P.B. & Kunzman, U. (2003). Wisdom. The Psychologist, 16, 131–133.
- Böhmig-Krumhaar, S.A., Staudinger, U.M. & Baltes, P.B. (2002). In search of more tolerance: Testing the facilitative effect of a knowledge-activating mnemonic strategy on value relativism. Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie, 34, 30–43. doi:10.1026//0049-86188.8.131.52 [CrossRef]
- Glück, J. & Baltes, P.B. (2006). Using the concept of wisdom to enhance the expression of wisdom knowledge: Not the philosopher’s dream but differential effects of developmental preparedness. Psychology and Aging, 21, 679–690. doi:10.1037/0882-79184.108.40.2069 [CrossRef]
- Gregory, R.J. (2007). Psychological testing: History, principles, and applications (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.
- Grossman, I., Na, J., Varnum, M.E.W., Kitayama, S. & Nisbett, R.E. (2012). A route to well-being: Intelligence versus wise reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 944–953. doi:10.1037/a0029560 [CrossRef]
- Kross, E. & Grossman, I. (2012). Boosting wisdom: Distance from the self enhances wise reasoning, attitudes, and behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 43–48. doi:10.1037/a0024158 [CrossRef]
- Staudinger, U.M. & Baltes, P.B. (1996). Interactive minds: A facilitative setting for a wisdom-related performance?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 746–762. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.116 [CrossRef]
- Staudinger, U.M., Maciel, A.G., Smith, J. & Baltes, P.B. (1998). What predicts wisdom-related performance? A first look at personality, intelligence, and facilitative experiential contexts. European Journal of Personality, 12, 1–17. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0984(199801/02)12:1<1::AID-PER285>3.0.CO;2-9 [CrossRef]
- Sternberg, R.J. (2001). Why schools should teach for wisdom: The balance theory of wisdom in educational settings. Educational Psychologist, 36, 227–245. doi:10.1207/S15326985EP3604_2 [CrossRef]
- Sternberg, R.J. (2004a). Four alternative futures for education in the United States: It’s our choice. School Psychology Review, 33, 67–77.
- Sternberg, R.J. (2004b). What is wisdom and how can we develop it?The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 164–174. doi:10.1177/0002716203260097 [CrossRef]